It took 30 years for Charles Burnett’s first film, Killer of Sheep (1977), one of the greatest evocations of daily hardship and joy, to receive a proper theatrical release; 17 have passed since The Glass Shield (1994), his scorching, complex look at racism and police corruption, and his last movie to be picked up for distribution. Yet Burnett has never stopped working: MOMA’s complete retrospective redresses the neglect this singular filmmaker, the foremost storyteller of African-American lives, has often withstood.
Coming right after the blaxploitation craze of the early to mid-’70s and more than a decade before the in-the-’hood phase of the early ’90s, Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s thesis film for UCLA, explores, as I’ve written before, what it means to be a man, a woman, a child just barely eking out a marginally comfortable existence. Set in Watts—where the director, born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1944, has lived (or near) for most of his life—Burnett’s debut unfolds as a series of loose episodes, centering around Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), an abattoir worker weighed down by a sadness he can’t explain who finds fleeting pleasure in dancing with his wife (Jaycee Moore) before pulling away, or in the caress of his young daughter (Angela Burnett, the director’s niece). As the slaughterhouse employee weathers the unbearable heaviness of being, Burnett perfectly captures the marvels of children at play, never more so than when Stan’s little girl sings joyously off-key to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons.” (Even in Burnett’s lesser projects, like the 1999 civil-rights Disney TV movie Selma, Lord, Selma, he shows a tender respect for kids.)
Angela Burnett turns up in her uncle’s second film, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), this time as a teenager with a big crush on Pierce (Everett Silas), a 30-year-old still living at home with—and working for—Mom and Dad, toiling behind the counter of their dry-cleaning shop. Humming at a droller register than Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding continues the earlier film’s focus on both the strain of obligations to kin and the odd theatrical grace of commonplace interactions (the latter of which enlivens America Becoming, a 1991 documentary on immigration that Burnett made for PBS).
“Don’t call your mother ‘Ma-dear,’ ” Stan scolds his son in Killer of Sheep, enraged by the boy’s use of an old-fashioned matriarchal term. The tension between country and city, old ways and new, drives the masterful To Sleep With Anger (1990), starring Danny Glover (in his best performance) as a bumpkin from “down home” who upends the lives of several generations of friends he visits in South Central L.A. Throughout, Burnett remains ever astute about the complexity of families—a gift that will undoubtedly enrich his next project, a documentary on Stanley Ann Dunham, President Obama’s mother.